Years ago, Tom Lund was leading a team at a Fortune 200 company, and feeling particularly bogged down—“like my head was in a vice,” Lund says, “or, that I was in a submarine that was down too far under the water.”
Lund, who is now the director of practice development for the professional tax and audit services firm, Tanner LC, might still be in that sub if he hadn’t listened to some candid advice from a friend: “You need to get back on the rock,” she told him. Lund had given up rock climbing many years earlier, but he knew she was right. It was time to get back on the rock.
“I went out and bought some rock shoes and started in a very gently way climbing again.” Lund says. “And, I went back to this climb called Becky’s Wall. I hadn’t climbed Becky’s Wall for years, and it was like meditation. I’d reach up and—oh, there’s that hold, oh yeah there’s that hold there, and they were all there. It was very soothing.” But Lund’s meditation was not only soothing to his soul—it influenced the way he worked.
“When I got back into climbing after being out of it for 10 years and feeling kind of rung out, it was only within two or three times that I felt like I could handle anything in the business world,” Lund says. “It gave me a big reserve to come back to that Fortune 200 company and to help my team and to pick up people that were relying on me and to feel strong. That’s interesting isn’t it—something that simple.”
It is interesting—how something as simple as getting balance in your life can help you become a better leader. And it makes sense, but it can be difficult to do. Lund certainly isn’t alone in his submarine feeling … is he? There are leaders everywhere—a manager, a CEO, an entrepreneur or perhaps an aspiring business leader who feels weighed down, without really knowing why. Maybe it’s even you who’s looking for a way to improve or change?
For Lund, getting back on the rock instilled him with a renewed confidence that helped him enable others to feel strong and perform better at work.
“And I like to say,” says Lund, “that when I left I felt like primitive man hunched over carrying all the weight of the world on my shoulders—and when I returned I felt like Moses coming down from Sinai, I was ready to go out and sleigh another dragon.”
It might be time for you, too, to find a renewed strength and balance again. It may sound crazy, but maybe it’s time you focus on yourself instead of your business or your specific duties as a leader. Maybe it’s time you get back on your rock.
It Starts With You
Bruce Jackson, founder of the Institute of Applied Human Excellence and director of the Center for the Advancement of Leadership at Utah Valley University, says before you begin improving as a leader, you have to define what leadership really means. Jackson, who has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D.—a true scholar of human performance and leadership—says he’s looked at many flawed leadership definitions.
“Most of these definitions are what I call outside-in definitions instead if of an inside-out definition—where leadership is automatically about you leading other people toward some goal or objective,” Jackson says. “But that’s not where leadership starts. Leadership starts with you.”
Jackson says leading effectively always includes the leader learning and growing by studying leadership and practicing it daily. “Because leaders desire to be leaders,” he says. “We are born with the capacity to lead, and through our intentional activities we acquire the knowledge, skills and practices that will help us to become better leaders.”
As the recession continues to set in, many leaders have found a need to take their companies back to the basics by fine-tuning accounting records, omitting needless processes, and re-aligning business performance with business goals. There’s no better time for leaders themselves to go back to the basics and revisit what’s most important to them.
Fritz Black, founder of Cowboy Leaders, used skills he learned as a ranch boy to zip up to business and civil leadership positions throughout his life, including working as a top manager for Nestlé (which Black says at the time was the largest food company in the country). He now trains leaders and runs a ranch in Birdseye, Utah teaching others the cowboy leadership style.
“What I’ve learned about business leaders is they don’t spend enough time on themselves,” Black says. “They spend way too much time on policy, procedures, what’s going on in the business and bottom-line kind of things, and not nearly enough time on developing themselves as a leader.”
Black says the Cowboy Leaders’ mantra is “old world values, new world results,” meaning that by returning to cowboy traditions—particularly traditions like leading a horse—leaders can discover things about themselves and walk away being able to influence their own lives and businesses for good. Black says being a good leader means getting back to the basics of what’s important to you as a human being.
“We believe that in order to be effective you need to make sure that you’ve answered all the really hard questions before they ever get asked,” says Black. “Like, ‘What are the things that are most important to me,’ ‘What is it that I value in life,’ ‘What are my core principles, my core values, and the decisions that I make—will they support that or do they tear it apart?’”
Black believes answering these types of questions is important to leadership, because that knowledge gives you the power to act responsibly and consistently, which builds trust with the people you lead.
Finding Your Flow
Knowing what’s most important to you and what you value in life is different for everyone, and it can change over time, so Jackson recommends you do an assessment every three to six months to find out what area would be best to focus on.
“Identify what I call the flow assets and flow liabilities that help or hinder one’s capacity to lead or perform,” says Jackson. “To sort through those and identify your ‘one thing’ to focus on.”
In his Finding Your Flow workshops, Jackson has participants answer approximately 60 questions and then ranks their responses according to whether the answers are a strength or a burden/weakness. Answers that rank as the No. 1 burden are identified as the participant’s worst burden or liability, and that is the participant’s “one thing” to focus on improving. At the same time, the participant is encouraged to grow his or her strengths.
Some of the questions the survey includes are: How personally organized is my workspace? Do I like the people I work with? Am I managing my attitude well? Am I eating well? Am I listening effectively? Do I have clear goals and objectives?
Jackson also suggests using the people who know you the very best to help you improve as a leader. Find five to 10 people willing to answer these three questions: 1) What do you think I do exceptionally well as a leader and as a person? 2) Where do you think I have the most challenges or struggles? And 3) What would you recommend I do differently?
These people can be family members, business partners, and people you lead and work with. After getting responses, Jackson says, “sort those out and get to work.”
The Horse Says What?
At Cowboy Leaders, Black helps leaders identify their liabilities, or things they can work on, by observing how they lead a horse. We all learn from a young age that horses say, “neigh.” But Black says they say a little bit more, if you listen.
Here’s how it’s done: A horse is put into a round pen; the leader in training and the cowboy stand in the middle of the pen while the horse walks around them. As the horse moves, the leader asks it to change directions. The leader is supposed to influence the horse to do two moves: an inside turn (where the leader invites the horse into his or her space and then turn to go the other direction) and an outside turn (where the horse turns and looks away from the leader—the easiest turn to make).
“When we put leaders in that situation, we find that all of their character strengths and challenges come out in that session,” says Black. “So if someone is extremely aggressive, and has a hard time allowing people to give their own opinion, kind of runs over people, that comes out in that session. The horse never wants to enter that person’s space and do an inside turn. All it wants to do is run away from that person and do an outside turn. It’ll get the same result, the horse is changing directions, but it’s because of negative pressure rather than positive pressure. Someone who is giving and charismatic with a magnetic personality, the horse naturally wants to be in their space.”
Black says he helped an IT manager with this exercise and in contrast to the 30-minute average it normally takes to conduct the training session, it took this particular leader-in-training two and a half hours to get the horse to make an inside turn. From observing the horse and the manager’s body language and reactions, Black shared his suspicion with the manager that he may have a real problem accepting input from others. Six months later, the manager called Black and said he’d been promoted twice since his experience at Cowboy Leaders.
“I changed my approach toward people,” the IT manager told Black. “Instead of immediately trying to give answers, I always drop my shoulders, look at them and say ‘what do you think?’ In just those few words of allowing people into my space, it’s caused me to grow and to use my abilities a lot more than I ever have before.”
OK, OK, it’s Not All About You
Black says service should be the foundation of every leader. Just like the cowboy makes sure the horse is fed, safe and respected, the business leader should serve his or her employees by ensuring that their needs are met, that they are paid fairly, given the tools needed to do their job, and that they have job security.
If you’d like to improve your leadership skills, think about including your team or colleagues in the training session. Consider participating in a team-building activity, paying close attention to how you and your team interact. Bring a professional to your office, or go off-site like to the Wasatch Mountains for a rock climbing, snow-cave building, or other outdoor adventure. You can even venture to the Great Salt Lake for a team-building sailing lesson.
The Bonneville School of Sailing connects the corporate world challenges with sailboat solutions dubbed the Seven C’s. The Seven C’s put into action are communication, collaboration, commitment, cooperation, conflict management, change management and contribution.
“As challenges increase, the need to be more effective in all aspects of communication and collaboration dramatically increases,” says Todd Frye, director of the Bonneville School of Sailing. “Participants can really get into the whole racing scene, but to be a winner, everyone needs to cooperate and solve problems through effective conflict resolution.”
Although several elements of team sailing translate to the office, learning to work together as a team on the water with common goals facilitates trust and cohesion, both critical elements of a winning team within the workplace.
There are many ways to improve your business and your role there. Whether it’s by participating in a deep self-evaluation, learning to lead a horse or simply getting back on the rock, the truth of the matter is, it should probably start with you. As Jackson says, the first part of leadership is the “capacity to influence oneself.” Only then, he says, can you influence others to effectively reach their goals.
Rediscover your passion for people, business and leadership. Find your one thing to work on, and overall, Lund says to be true to yourself. “If someone can be thoughtful and live a life with a little bit of passion, and do it the way they want to do it, they’re going to be strong. They’re going to be better for it. It’s about being authentic—you have to find your own voice, you have to refine who you are.”